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Superflyweight Boxing Champion Faces Racism in Japan - 2003-11-19

Masamori Tokuyama is one of Japan's top athletes and a world superflyweight boxing champion. But despite his world-class status, he sometimes does not get the recognition of other famous athletes in Japan because of his Korean ancestry. Masamori Tokuyama, a soft-spoken 29-year-old with dyed blond hair, is one of two world champion boxers in Japan. He recently beat a Japanese rival to retain his World Boxing Council super-flyweight title for the seventh time, making his record the third best ever in Japan.

Boxers and fans say Mr. Tokuyama's feat is extremely difficult to achieve, because defending a title is more challenging than becoming a champion.

"Many people snuggle up to the champion," explains the boxer. "That will spoil him and eventually deprive him of the ability to maintain a hungry spirit in the ring."

Mr. Tokuyama became a world champion three years ago. In his nine years as a professional boxer, Mr. Tokuyama has piled up 29 wins, including eight knockouts, two losses and one draw. He fights as a superflyweight with a maximum weight of 52 kilograms. Despite being a world champion, Mr. Tokuyama's ancestry interferes with his popularity in Japan, he is ethnically Korean.

The champ's ancestors are from a village in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. They were taken to Japan as forced laborers during Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.

Mr. Tokuyama takes pride in his heritage and has no interest in the complex politics between the capitalist South and Stalinist North Korea. He says he identifies with North Korea only because his ancestors came from there.

However, Pyongyang claims the champ as a native son and praises his boxing victories. Two years ago, he was invited there to receive the title of "hero."

Koreans routinely face discrimination in Japan, but the situation has worsened since North Korea admitted abducting Japanese citizens and acknowledged having a nuclear arms program.

When Mr. Tokuyama won the world championship three years ago, Japanese television networks did not air the match. Television executives said they did not think a fight starring an ethnic Korean would attract Japanese viewers.

But Junichi Hirata, editor of Japan's main boxing magazine, says Mr. Tokuyama's ethnicity has little to do with his success in the boxing field.

Mr. Hirata says fans do not care about race or nationality, they care about the boxer's technique. He says Mr. Tokuyama's fighting style is outstanding and he expects the boxer to keep his title.

But former Japanese flyweight champion Takato Toguchi sees it differently. He says Mr. Tokuyama is an excellent boxer and attracts real fans who do not care about boxer's ethnic background. But Mr. Toguchi thinks less serious boxing fans tend to support athletes from their home country. He adds that Mr. Tokuyama's popularity is slightly lower than other world champions in Japan.

Mr. Tokuyama says he has had problems. At one point, he had to shut down his personal Web site.

"I received many threatening messages that hurt my feelings," he said. "But I also received many encouraging mails from fans. I just want to live as a Korean boxer in Japan." Mr. Tokuyama was born in 1974 in Tokyo and raised there.

"There are certain disadvantages for me to live in Japanese society, but I never thought about changing my identity because to do so would be to betray my family," he said.

Mr. Tokuyama says he started boxing by chance.

"My father and brothers do karate, so I wanted to join the karate team at my high school," he said. "One day, I visited the boxing team and saw people boxing. I was inspired by their vigor and I decided I wanted to try it."

He worked out daily at his school's club under a coach who pushed him hard, but the work paid off and he repeatedly won school tournaments. After three years of intense training, he began his professional career at age 20.

Mr. Tokuyama has his eye on an eighth world champion title in January, when he meets top-ranked Russian contender Dimitri Kirilov in the ring.